The return of the Donbas within a year?

March 12, 2016

A few days ago in an interview with TRT World (Turkey), President Poroshenko claimed that the occupied Donbas would be returned to Ukraine within a year.  At the time of writing that seems to be somewhat “hopeful” – or perhaps “potentially catastrophic” should a reader be of the opinion Ukraine is simply not politically, institutionally or financially strong enough to receive such a devastated infrastructure and poisoned atmosphere.

Indeed only the foolish (or perhaps The Kremlin) would expect Ukraine to fully implement its Minsk obligations in the current circumstances within the occupied Donbas.  “The West” would be far better off publicly stating that it understands that is the situation and thus publicly lean less on Ukraine to fulfill such obligations while the circumstances remain significantly unchanged, and lean far harder on Ukraine to reform instead.

Perhaps such a shift in “Western” messaging would change the Kremlin calculus somewhat.  The entirety of “western” political and diplomatic energy pushing a reformed Ukraine, with less pressure regarding Minsk would at the very least raise eyebrows in Moscow.  Unless the situation changes dramatically regarding ceasefires and the ability to hold elections that in current circumstances would forever sully the reputation of the OSCE, it is policy folly.  Such a messaging shift would inevitably mean Kyiv actually moving “westward” slightly faster than it is doing.  As The Kremlin cares far more about the Ukrainian shift “westward”, and cares nothing about the occupied Donbas should it fail be to an effective lever over Kyiv, it is possible such a change in messaging could have an effect – or not.

Should circumstances in the occupied Donbas change sufficiently, naturally Messrs Zakharchenko
and Plotnitsky have no political future – those political futures exist only for as long as The Kremlin decides to retain control and heavily subsidise the occupied Donbas territories.

How long can the illicit revenue streams in the occupied territories remain controlled/directed to avoid internal (and external) schisms?  Despite claims to the contrary, it seems highly unlikely that Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders when expelled from the occupied territories for espionage were actually engaged in any meaningful espionage – if any whatsoever.  Espionage would seem to be an excuse, when the real issues are far more likely to have been control of revenue flows from medicines.  Médecins Sans Frontières handing out free medicines is hardly conducive to the lucrative medicine racketeering within the occupied territories.

As has been stated here before, anything approaching a successful reintegration will rely upon Rinat Akhmetov to quite a degree.  He remains the major employer of the region.  He has continued paying wages despite his workers not working.  His aid convoys regularly get through (and to be clear, contain aid).  There is no need to go on, suffice to say his influence of all those who remained on the Ukrainian side of the “contact line” will remain the greatest and have the most resonance among the local population.

Thus if the recovery and reintegration of the currently occupied Donbas is truly an immovable policy in Kyiv (which it is), then Mr Akhmetov for all his faults, nefarious historical dealings and oligarchy status, will be a necessity and play a major role in the process.


The question is what role?  Formal or informal?  Transparently political as well as clearly economic?  Would he be the ideal (for however long a period) official head of the Donbas region that gathers enough trust from Kyiv, the people of Donbas, and The Kremlin to direct events there smoothly?

The Kremlin, if it is to shuffle quietly out of the strategic Donbas disaster it began, will desire to do so under an occupied Donbas management that is seen to be “acceptable”.  Yet for all that has been written about Rinat Akhmetov, one has to suspect that it will be The Kremlin, of all parties, that has the least trust in Mr Akhmetov.

If not he, then who?

Yuri Boiko?  He is a man with far less influence in the Donbas than Rinat Akhmetov, albeit he is officially the talking head of the Opposition Block (Party of Regions remnants).  He may well have much more trust within The Kremlin than Rinat Akhmetov – in fact he probably has.  He may also have enough trust from Kyiv too.  What he fails to have is the on-going influence of Rinat Akhmetov, and being seen no more favourably by the majority of the Ukrainian public than Mr Akhmetov is, if Kyiv is going to irk the Ukrainian constituency, it may as well be with an overtly political Rinat Akhmetov in Donetsk.

History may yet look back and view Mr Akhmetov’s only major error during the entire Donbas disaster, as being that he dallied far too long in protecting his interests in the Donbas after the illegal actions in Crimea.  Had he flooded the streets of Donetsk with his people and thousands of employees robustly pooh-poohing any thoughts of following that line, then perhaps outcomes would be different today.  Certainly when his people and workers took to the streets of Mariupol, that city stayed with Ukraine.

Perhaps one day somebody will ask him that very question.

There is perhaps a role for both of these men.

After any “Minsk Agreement elections” there will be two regions requiring “acceptable” leaders to all concerned.  Maybe Mr Akhmetov to Donetsk and Mr Boiko to Luhansk?

It is certainly an idea that Viktor Medvedchuk is pushing – albeit Ukrainians probably trust Viktor Medvedchuk even less than Messrs Akhmetov and Boiko.  Yet as Mr Medvedchuk is personally close with President Putin, some would infer that there may be a degree of tacit approval, or at the very least the names have not been dismissed out of hand, as acceptable managers of the reintegration and its immediate aftermath from a Kremlin perspective.

Perhaps there is simply no traction for such an idea (at least for now) in Kyiv or Moscow, and it is a mere speculative roll of the Medvedchuk dice.  Perhaps there is no intention within The Kremlin to change the circumstances within the occupied Donbas whatsoever.  Maybe “The West” will dismiss the opportunity to change the calculus of both Kyiv and The Kremlin by toning down public Minsk demands/rhetoric/expectations on Kyiv, and ramping up reform demands/expectations/rhetoric instead – at least whilst the current circumstances continue, and it is only within the occupied territories that circumstances can change sufficiently to facilitate further Minsk progress.

However unlikely it currently appears that President Poroshenko’s claims on TRT will be realised in the time fame he gave, it remains prudent to ponder how, and under whom, any reintegration would occur at the regional level.

There are clearly no good personnel choices – so the choices are those of “acceptability”.  To be blunt, the list is short and distinctly odious at a time when Ukrainian progress requires the diminishing role of the oligarchy, rather than an increasing role.


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